Director Jung Bum-sik struck box office gold with an effective horror outing.
The history of Korean horror was rewritten this year by the most unlikely of contenders, as a low-budget found footage chiller became one of the top-selling K-horrors of all time. Without the benefit of any stars, Epitaph co-director Jung Bum-sik struck box office gold with Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, which fell shy of only Kim Jee-won's A Tale of Two Sisters on the all-time local horror chart.
A popular vlogger recruits a group of young amateur paranormal sleuths for a special trip to the countryside. Their mission is to explore the Gonjiam Haunted Asylum, which was named by CNN as one of the seven 'freakiest places on the planet'. The asylum, which once housed the mentally ill as well as political prisoners, was said to be a site of experimentation and torture before being shuttered in the 1970s. Once there, the hardened crew livestream their progress within the building while the leader orchestrates their maneuvers from a base camp outside. Over the course of an increasingly unpredictable night, some staged scares quickly make way for events that are beyond easy explanation.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum takes its cue from several hit found footage films around the world, but also a number of low-budget (and frankly underwhelming) local horrors that follow young protagonists live-streaming exploits that quickly turn gruesome or ghoulish, such as Live TV, The Haunted House Project or Hide-and-Never Seek. While Gonjiam doesn't offer anything radically new to the genre, it is the first Korean film to properly blend found footage with modern media trends. To boot, it has enormously effective scares in spades and has already caused millions to jump out of their seats in Korean multiplexes.
Though not a big seller, Epitaph, which Jung Bum-sik co-directed with Jung Sik (who returned with The Tooth and the Nail last year), is considered one of the better Korean horror offerings of the 2000s and may have suffered at the box office due to its Japanese Colonial Era setting, a few years before the time period came in vogue in Korean films. Following Jung's poorly received second work, the sex comedy Casa Amor: Exclusive for Ladies, Gonjiam proves to be a massive return to form. Stripping away the formal elegance of his debut and the kitsch of his follow-up, Jung's third film is a lean scare machine that keeps things simple and identifies what works in the found footage subgenre.
Nervous laughter quickly makes way for palpitating panic as Jung confidently wrings tension out of low-lit and lingering images. Rather than punctuate his scenes with crashing musical cues, he allows the darkness of the screen to fill our imagination as he guides us through the shadows.
While Gonjiam is effective technically, the fears it generates are hardly the lasting kind. The young protagonists are thinly drawn and some are even interchangeable, which undercuts our investment in them. The story also falls short of going somewhere truly disquieting, and peace of mind is quickly restored when the lights turn back on. Yet with a horror outing as effective as this, it seems captious to raise such petty complaints.